Craig Breedlove / early jet powered land speed records


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If you were a young guy in the 60’s the quest for ultimate land speed records were something you were very much aware of. They were heady days of pushing new technologies to their limits, for the first time jet powered vehicles were showing up on the salt flats and records began falling left and right. It was an exciting time in history and the battle for speed records and the frequency in which new records were constantly being set , was ( to me , at least ) nearly as captivating as the space program.

If you were aware of all this back then, then you were familiar with the name Craig Breedlove.
Five time world land speed record holder. The first man to go 500mph and 600 mph on land.

In 1960 Craig was driven by a desire to set the ultimate land speed record, he had an idea for a salt flat racer with an entirely new design. He went to a dealer in Las Angeles that was selling Korean War military surplus and purchased a GE J-47 jet engine for $500, scrap metal prices.

He then set about constructing , from scratch, the Spirit of America, in his fathers garage.

This was the first of three Spirit of America streamliners that he would build.

In 1964, it was the race season on the salt flats and Craig showed up with his Spirit of America, but he would not be the only one campaigning a jet powered car. Ohio farmer Art Arfons would be running his very fast, but dangerous Green Monster, a car that had a nasty habit of crashing at high speed.


For the next two weeks the two of them traded back and forth setting new records, Craig knew he had more speed available with his afterburner equipped engine. And so he pushed his speed up to over 500mph, the first time any human has ever traveled that fast on land. But that was just the beginning.......

The following is an excerpt from an article about that event:

On Oct. 15, 1964, Craig Breedlove hurtled across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. He reached a top speed of 526 mph.

Breedlove had just surpassed his own land speed record. But things began to go wrong as he tried to slow down. The first problem was with the emergency parachute.

"The chute broke off," Breedlove says. "And I didn’t know that had happened."

But he did know about some of the other things that were going wrong. The steering was malfunctioning. And then there were the brakes.

"He tries the brakes. They melt," says writer Samuel Hawley. "He has no brakes. He’s going 500 mph. He’s running out of course, and he’s got no way to stop."
"So I came down the course," Breedlove says, "and went through the place that I’m supposed to be stopped."

"Went through" is understatement in the extreme.

"I was still travelling a good 400 mph," Breedlove says.

Crew members gave chase in cars. But their top speeds were just 70 or 80 mph. They knew Breedlove's jet-engine powered Spirit of America wouldn’t stop before it reached a construction site at the edge of the highway.

"I had to make it over a wooden bridge that they had built," Breedlove says, "and ended up knocking down a telephone pole by Highway 80, and went over an embankment at about 220 mph. And the car went airborne."

With no brakes or emergency parachute and very little steering, Breedlove cut the engine. But he was still going more than 200 mph by the time he hit that embankment and launched into the air over an evaporation pond.

Spirit of America gets lifted out of the salt pond. The pond was only ankle deep, but it hid an 18-foot trench that swallowed the jet car. (Courtesy Craig Breedlove)
"The first time I hit the water, the car kinda skipped like a rock that you throw across a lake," Breedlove says. "And it jumped off the water. And the second time it came down, the water grabbed it really tight and sucked me down. And then I was starting to sink. I had my seatbelt off and everything. But I couldn’t get out of the cockpit. And it was starting to take me under the water.

"And then I realized I hadn’t unplugged my breathing mask."

Breedlove freed himself and swam to shore. He was met by his giddy and greatly relieved crew.

Spirit of America was recovered, repaired and donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the fall of 1965, Breedlove — in a new car — and Art Arfons met once more at Bonneville.

Breedlove’s second jet car, Spirit of America-Sonic I. (Courtesy Craig Breedlove)
"And Art said, 'So, what’s gonna happen here, Craig?' " Hawley says. " 'If I take the record from you, are you just gonna come back and take it back from me? And we’re gonna keep going back and forth until one of us gets killed?' And Craig was kind of taken aback by this. But he said, 'Well, yeah, I guess so!' And so Art Arfons says, 'Well, it’s gonna be like a game of Russian Roulette, then.' ”

Breedlove went first. On Nov. 2, he reached 555 mph. Three days later, Arfons took the record back.

"It was 576 mph that Art pushed it to," Hawley says.

On Nov. 15, Breedlove took two runs. On the second …

"The nose of his Spirit of America-Sonic 1 is starting to lift off the ground," Hawley says. "He’s on the verge of flying. But somehow he hung on, and he set the record at 600.601 mph. Amazingly, no one died."

That was Craig’s last record setting run. His record stood until 1970 when driver Gary Gabelich , driving the natural gas powered rocket streamliner Blue Flame, pushed the record up to 622 mph.

The absolute speed record has only been broken three times since then. In 1983 Richard Noble driving Thrust 2 went 634 mph.

Finally the last record was set by Andy Green in 1997, at 760mph while driving the Thrust SCC, he became the first man to break the sound barrier at that time.

The quest for ultimate speed has sort of faded now. The streamliners have become extremely expensive and development time takes a long time and it is not easy to find wealthy corporate sponsors to fund them.

Circling back to the beginning of this article. The part that I find most impressive are the pioneers, guys like Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons, who built these impressive barrier busting streamliners in their home garages, without computer design software.

I remember those early days like it just happened. They were really exciting times,
Yes, they were. My first thoughts of Spirit of America back then were that someone had pulled the wings off a F-104, and added wheels.

Remember the short-lived period of the peroxide rocket dragsters?
So you thought your neighbor with the open pipes Harley was annoying? Check out this guy with his jet powered Hyabusa running up and down his street. Haha! :laugh2:

I remember those days. It was exciting. Most of my updates came from magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular Science... Hot Rod.... Used to drool all over 'em. :rolleyes:
I remember , as a kid, watching a documentary on Breedlove’s story, the whole build up to it. It started with his building the car and the early test runs and the competition between him and Art Arfons , and it ended with that historic high speed crash. It completely mesmerized me at the time!
While those guys were certainly innovative and had great big brass ones, I was not a fan.

IMHO, those are not cars, those are airplanes designed not to fly.
those are airplanes designed not to fly.
Nah.... Republic made airplanes designed not to fly. There was a saying in the F-105 world that "if someone built a runway that stretched around the world... Republic would build an airplane that couldn't take off from it." ;)
If you remember Craig Breedlove you'll remember the Beatnik Bandit. In some dank corner with a fuse box gathering dust. Never went over 25 mph tho if it even ran.

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